Flavors of China
Chinese cuisine spans the entire spectrum of flavors, ingredients, and cooking styles. Almost every city or town is known for at least one or two specialty dishes. Wheat is the staple of choice in China's dry north, but in the wet south rice is favored. Most large Chinese cities offer a bit of everything from around the country, plus lots of local specialties. There's plenty of delicious street food out there—hygiene levels can vary, so look for stalls with a long line of locals and make sure your food is cooked while you're waiting.
Vegetables and Tofu
Vegetables are usually a part of any Chinese meal, with most varieties common to Western countries available—plus many that aren't, such as bitter melon or morning glory. Cold dishes such as pickled radishes or cucumber chunks in garlic and vinegar are a common way to start off a meal. Hot vegetable dishes can take on all forms. Many, especially leafy greens, are often simply chopped and stir-fried with just a bit of seasoning. Where you are in China often affects the cooking method of your favorite veggie. If you're hungry for potatoes in Harbin, they may be cooked with green pepper and eggplant in a red sauce, whereas in Yunnan, spicy mashed potatoes, crispy hash browns, and even potato and pumpkin soup are more common. Tofu, known in China as doufu, is available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Firm white tofu is commonly eaten in the Sichuanese style—bathed in a spicy and numbing sauce—but it is also served in soups with spinach or other greens. More adventurous eaters might try tofu with preserved eggs. Tofu skin (doufu pi) is a byproduct of normal tofu production, and contains fewer impurities. It can be stir-fried with peppers or mushrooms, and is a popular ingredient for cooking in hotpot. Vegetarians traveling in China should keep in mind that many restaurants will add small amounts of pork, ham, oyster sauce, or other non-veggie items to seemingly vegetarian dishes, including tofu. Make sure you emphasize no meat whatsoever when ordering to maximize the chance of getting what you want.
Chinese cuisine features nearly every type of meat imaginable—nothing is too strange to consume, and there are no prohibitions on consumption of certain animals. Dog, bullfrog, rabbit, and snake are perfectly ordinary ingredients, as are all varieties of organs, including kidneys, liver, ears, and even penises. Pork and chicken are the most popular meats. Beef is also commonly consumed, but lamb tends to be found mainly only in Muslim dishes. It's difficult to find Western-style large chunks of meat—shredded, sliced, or cubed, it all comes small and chopstick-ready. Chicken is often cooked on the bone. In Beijing, Peking duck is a specialty that can't be missed—wrap it in pancakes with scallions and dip it in tangy sauce. Dishes from the predominantly Muslim northwest feature hearty stews, usually with lamb or chicken. Sichuan cuisine, while too spicy for some, features some great meat dishes, including the accessible kung pao chicken. In Yunnan, the local ham is famous, and works great adding flavor to fried vegetable dishes. Iron plate beef (tieban niurou) is a popular fajita-style dish that can be found countrywide, and features strips of beef cooked with onion and green pepper in gravy, served on an iron hot plate. If you're into street snacks, slender kebabs of barbecued meat can be found for sale across the country, usually flavored with chili and cumin. Yunnan takes this a step further—the province is known for its night stalls selling all manner of skewered treats.
Fish holds a special place in Chinese cuisine—it's both a status dish and an auspicious symbol. Any banquet celebrating a festival or a special occasion will feature a fish. The fish is usually cooked and served whole, swimming in soy sauce with a dressing of scallions. In the seafaring south, superstitious eaters never turn the fish over, but eat "through" it. The quality and variety of seafood is much better on China's coast, but it is consumed countrywide, with farmed fish keeping inland diners happy. Most river or lake fish should be avoided, owing to pollution issues.
Seafood is kept alive as long as possible to preserve freshness, so don't be surprised to find yourself choosing your ingredients from tanks at the front of the restaurant or watching your fish being killed in front of you. Given this extra difficulty when ordering, Hong Kong is a great place to eat seafood. All manner of shellfish are on the menu, from expensive abalone to simple clams. Generally cooking styles are simple, and focus on the flavor of the ingredients. Some diners may find shellfish less well cooked than they are used to. Shrimp is usually served with the shells on.
Shark-fin soup is one of the most expensive delicacies to be found in China, and is often served to esteemed guests or at important business banquets. Many Chinese are unaware of the massive negative impact the harvesting of shark fins is having on the oceanic ecosystem. Prior to an expensive banquet, you may want to tell your host that you do not eat shark-fin soup for environmental reasons—this can save you the social awkwardness of refusing it when it is placed before you.
As noted earlier, China's staple foods are split along a north-south divide, but that doesn't mean that people in the north don't eat rice and southerners don't enjoy a bowl of wheat noodles.
Wheat is the primary grain grown in China's north, and wheat flour is used in making a wide variety of noodles as well as dumplings, breads, and pancakes. Lamian—wheat noodles made fresh by an entertaining process of stretching, swinging, and smacking wheat dough—are one of the most popular noodles in China. Lanzhou-style lamian are available almost anywhere in China, and are typically served in a mutton broth with green onions and sprigs of cilantro. Stir-fried noodles (chaomian) are also popular, and can be made with virtually any ingredient. Xinjiang cuisine features some of the most delicious noodles found in China, ranging from chunks of diced noodles to long, flat, wide noodles and everything in between. Dumplings are a popular wheat-based staple, and can be a meal on their own. They can be prepared by boiling, steaming, or boiling and then pan-frying. Steamed buns with filling (baozi) or without (mantou) are often eaten for breakfast. Steamed rice is most commonly eaten white, with other dishes piled on top of it, but many people enjoy it stir-fried with any imaginable combination of vegetables, egg, meats or seafood. Rice noodles can be found throughout southern China, from fat spaghetti-like mixian to fettucine-style fen, to fensi, a transparent noodle that resembles vermicelli.
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